Graham Reid | | 7 min read
Richard Thompson starts on the back foot. The legendary British songwriter whose career dates back to the seminal folk-rock group Fairport Convention in the late Sixties and whose admirers include the Finns, Bob Mould and latterly Jeff Tweedy of Wilco among many others, including Elsewhere – came to New Zealand's inaugural Womad at Western Springs Park in Auckland in '97, but hasn't been back since.
“I apologise, it's a tragic mistake, he laughs. “But I'm coming there as fast as I can. It was a lovely and beautiful setting and like most Womads it was very well organised. I had a great time.”
He is returning for the forthcoming Womad and bringing his current band, which he jokingly refers to as his “less powerful power trio” and “a wimp trio”.That band (plus some pals) recorded the album Electric and on its release in 2013 Elsewhere did a lengthy interview with Thompson, whom we'd also spoken to in '91. But he's always interesting and so we signed up for a chat once again, but because we had previously traversed much of the territory that other interviewers would be obliged to do, we took a different tack . . . as you may see. And he was as interesting and humorous as always.
I guess the reason you haven't been here in such a long time is that you have been busy, but when I spoke to you the last time you mentioned this trio format allowed you more flexibility of travel because it was simply more economic.
Yes, having a three-piece helps a lot with the economics and I'm glad about that. It seems a long way but it's not really it just seems that, and I guess that's just psychological. I'd love to come more than I do but it's a cost factor and a matter of finding a couple of festivals which can help pay for the airfares.
It is Taras [Prodaniuk, bass] and Michael [Jerome, drums] coming with you?
Yes, it is.
I know you did an acoustic tour also but have you been out with the trio mostly in the period since the album came out?
Yes, we did a whole tour of the US and Europe and we just finished recording a new trio record and were up in Chicago with Jeff Tweedy. He produced our new record which should come out in June. While we're at Womad hopefully we can debut a few of the new songs off the record.
Did Jeff make himself known to you, or did you approach him?
I think we just fell together. We did some touring with Wilco last year and I recall the idea was mooted that he'd be a great producer and his contribution was terrific.
What does he offer that someone like Buddy Miller – who did Electric – maybe couldn't, no disrespect to Buddy of course.
(Laughs). No. I think it's just he's was very good at hearing the things that a song needs, hearing rhythm and he's very good at adding subtle things to a song that enhance it a lot. And he's a good editor, good at saying, 'You don't need this part of the song'. He's economical.There are more subtle things than that but those are the broad strokes.
All producer have their virtues and it's not to compare and contrast them, but they all have particular things they bring.
Even at this time of your songwriting career it's still helpful to have someone acting as an editor? I would have through that by this time Richard you might have got that right.
(Laughs) Well, T.S. Eliot edited Ezra Pound. You are never too good or too old to have another pair of ears. I know how to make records. I can go into a studio and do the whole things start to finish. I can record and mix and do all that, but if I do that every time it's starts to sound predictable. So it's good to have some other ears from time to time. Not every time, but on some projects it's good to have someone say, 'Let's do it a bit differently'.
And there's different energy because it challenges me and the musicians a bit more. It keeps it all alive and happening.
When I spoke to you about Electric back in '13 you said just in passing you quite liked writing for specific projects like the trio because it focused your attention. When you were touring did you realise, 'We should do another album' and did that mean thinking along the lines of writing specifically for the group again?
Yes, I really enjoy playing with the trio and it's a great format for me, and we have a lot of fun on stage. So I thought 'Let's do more of the same'.
So I would write some more songs which would be trio-specific. I think there are songs which just arrive out the blue which you go, 'This isn't what I was thinking of but it's a good song so we could include that as well'.
So some of that was the process when you are writing for specific musicians, and other things arrive unexpectedly.
You make light of the trio by referring to it as your 'less powerful power trio' and 'the wimp trio'. Is that deliberately done to undercut expectations, because people know you as an exceptional guitarist who can really pull out the power. But on the Electric album there were very quiet songs like Another Small Thing and the lovely Snow Goose? The idea being, 'we can do that but we do the quieter, more thoughtful stuff as well'.
Well, we're not the Jimi Hendrix Experience and if you say 'rock trio' people think you are Rush or something. Or Green Day, where the guitarist is always on extreme setting and the drums are always loud. But what we really do is play music with a lot of contrast in it. We do acoustic stuff, we do quieter electric stuff and we also do fairly loud stuff too.
When it comes to a set you might play here for a large outdoor audience, do you have to make compromises. For example, much as you might want to do Snow Goose you'd think it might not go over with that broad outdoor audience. Or can that music translate anyway?
It depends on the crowd. Sometimes it takes a few songs once you are on stage to know what the set is going to be. You try a few things and if you do a slow song and people start drifting away you think, 'Uh-oh' and you up the tempo a bit. There are festivals where you have to absolutely not allow the attention to drop in the audience, you have to keep it up, because that's the kind of festival it is and that's what everybody else on the bill is doing.
The other thing with festivals is if you play quieter it can draw people in and that can be a real advantage. Other times you are outdoors and a couple of hundred feet from the next stage so if you play quiet you are hearing the other stage underneath your music and usually in a different key. That can be problematic.
I do festivals acoustically and there's a rock band on the next stage. You're in F sharp and they are in B flat, it's a mess. We take it as it comes and adjust accordingly.
You can change the set list if you read the crowd in a particular way?
Absolutely, absolutely. We have a set list and we need to do that for guitar and string changes, and for the lights to give them a clue . . . but we will absolutely change the set at any point.
How do you feel about people who yell out for particular songs quite persistently. I've always thought, 'Well, there's a set list and if it's on it they'll play it, if not . . .' What do you feel when you hear people yell out for things that might be so far in your back-catalogue that you would probably never play again.
I quite like it, it's a bit of audience research in a sense. (Laughs) Sometimes it's obvious songs like Vincent Black Lightning or Beeswing, songs I usually do because I sort of have to. Sometimes though it can be completely obscure and I will realise I'd completely forgotten about that song. If I'm not able to do it at that point it can send me to the back-catalogue to relearn it, maybe for the next show.
It's sometimes good to know what's on people's minds . . . although sometimes they shout out for Freebird, which as far as I know is not one of mine.
I bet you wish it was, it has been a good payday.
That's for sure.
You did the Acoustic Classics album and I imagine that was a project to take on the road.
It started out as something intended just for the merchandize table and wasn't going to be released, just something to buy at a live show. I wanted something on the acoustic tour for people who might have come to a show for the first time and this could be a souvenir, so I did fairly predictable songs, or what I thought would be the most popular selection. And then the record company heard it and thought they'd like to release it, so they did and it charted at number nine in the UK which was insane really. It did extremely well.
I don't know if you've seen it, but there was an album recently The Folk City Broadcast from a radio show you did in New York in '82. That was released a couple of years ago and obviously not sanctioned by you. How do you feel about things like that? Do you just have to shrug and accept that's the way things are these days?
I feel queasy. It's hard to control that kind of thing and stuff gets out al the time. If it's actually a real infringement of copyright I will ask the stuff to be taken down off places like You Tube, who will do that.
I'm more concerned about it not being a good performance rather than, 'This belongs to me and you can't have it'. I really think, 'Was that an off-night when I had a cold or the flu or something'. Those are the things you don't want out there.
Something that's freely available but not of the highest musical quality is annoying.
I'd like to think the stuff we select to put out is the highest quality we have available.
For information on ticketing and other details about the 2015 Taranaki Womad (March 13 - 15) go here